Review by Thomas Gregory
It’s an achievement that might not sound too impressive at first, but one I’ve seen unreached by professional companies on a regular basis. The Monash Uni Student Theatre (MUST) group, thankfully, has shown us they know how to perform comedy and tragedy in the same show. David Adjmi’s telling of Marie Antoinette, when taken seriously, should have us laughing and crying on the same night. The students, both onstage and off, have pulled out all the stops to ensure we do.
Marie Antoinette is so well-known in the English-speaking world that she has become a stereotype. Possibly even the codifier of the poor little rich girl trope, her story from queen to the headless symbol of tyranny is one almost every adult knows, so you would think yet another show of such a story would be boring. However, Adjmi’s script is one that gets to the core issues - the ridiculous nature of a spoilt monarchy, the naivety of the people who live in the gated worlds of power, and the tragedy of death regardless of whom it befalls.
Director Annabelle Wemyss writes in her notes that, while Adjmi warned that any parallel between the play and contemporary society should be accidental, that is impossible to see the reflections of inequality today. Sitting in the audience, only days after a 21st-century coronation, it is easy to see what they mean. However, this isn’t a political play. No, Wemyss instead focussed on the fever-dream-like aspects of the script, heightening some of the more absurd moments and pushing home the intimate terror of motherhood. The actors are encouraged to be unrestrained - let the comedy border on farce and let screams replace tears. The exaggeration is intentional and effective.
Felicity Barrow, who plays the eponymous queen, holds back in her comedic performance, sometimes struggling to show both a woman trying and a woman failing. However, when the story turns away from the light-hearted and tackles the serious issues, Barrow offers us a mother it is difficult for us not to care about. By the final monologue, delivered between sobs and shaking, there’s an impulse to walk onto the stage and give the poor woman a hug.
Barrow’s performance rises to new heights when paired with Elena Ruefenacht.
Ruefenacht plays Axel Fersen, the Swedish diplomat rumoured to be one of Antoinette’s lovers and the master behind the attempt to spirit the monarchs out of the country. Ruefenacht’s take is one of a powerful, intelligent figure, a reminder of what the king should be, and a human voice reminding us that Marie could be loved. The chemistry between Ruefenacht and Barrow is palpable, and the few moments they have on stage are the most compelling of the night.
Of course, for many audience members, it is the sheep that will steal the show. This imaginary member of livestock, played by Esther Penman, is very much an example of Shakespeare’s fool and is played as such. Penman’s depiction, counter to the rest of the show, is so calm and sincere that it only serves to illuminate further the absurdity of the role. Absurd, that is, in the sense of Beckett, in that the character finds nothing funny in their situation and only speaks the truth.
While these three stand out, each and every actor on stage is worthy of praise. Luca Edwards plays Louis XVI as naively optimistic, while Bella Kourdoulos’s Dauphin is so innocent that our hearts only break further when the child is ripped from their mother’s presence. Lindy Zurbos, Marlley McNamara, Yemaya Greenwood, and Tash Frost round out the cast, often playing multiple supporting characters.
The most impressive roles of the night, however, go to those oft-unsung heroes who designed the set, lighting and sound. The set is deceptively minimalist while capturing the spirit of the world perfectly. Suba Selvarajan’s framing of the few projections and the simple use of decals on the black box flooring make all the difference. Nicolani Susanto’s was often all that was required to change an empty space from drawing room, to lonely road to prison cell.
The sound design in this production may very well be some of the very best I have ever experienced. Even taking away the incredible soundtrack (someone send me the playlist!), you are left with these brilliant soundscapes that have a true physical effect on the audience. There is a revolution occurring just outside the doors of some scenes, and through sound alone, Roni Corby and Lucienne Wynne ensure we remain on the edge of our seats. Then there is the prison, that empty space with the odd, echoing drop of water somewhere in the corner of the cold cell.
MUST reminds us that you should never expect any less from a student production than you would a national company. Marie Antoinette is showing until the 20th of May, so get tickets now while you can.